Monday, December 17, 2007

What do you do with the collection of a nobody?

One of the most active archival institutional blogs is Historical Notes from OHSU, the blog of Oregon Health & Science University's Historical Collections & Archives. I'm in awe of the frequency and the quality of the posts on this blog, which attest to some serious blogger discipline. I was struck by this recent post about the desirability of collecting "the great" versus collecting "nobodies," because I had been thinking along similar lines as the result of a collection we surveyed recently.

This particular collection consisted of the papers of a Pennsylvania man who appears to have worked in middle management in some sort of factory or plant. This man was a frustrated writer and inventor, as evidenced by the reams of unpublished manuscripts he left behind -- for poems, plays, essays, and novels (often accompanied by rejection letters), as well as notes on inventions and many politely worded declines from a range of companies of this man’s ideas for "the next big thing." Correspondence in the collection indicates that its creator had contacted a number of repositories in a desperate bid to have it placed somewhere, anywhere, so that his life's work wouldn't be for naught. Correspondence in the collection from the holding repository suggests that the curator took pity on this person, and agreed to take in the collection as "storage." (The collection arrived in the early 1970s, likely at a time when stack space was at less of a premium.) So, this collection has survived and made it into a repository, but to what purpose?

Certainly there is a now fairly longstanding trend of looking into the lives of ordinary people, particularly ordinary women. I don't know if this collection is that reflective of the experience of an "ordinary" man, however – it seems fairly unordinary to leave behind 18 feet of unpublished manuscripts and a raft of letters to various companies suggesting improvements to typewriter efficiency and renewed marketing of the hula hoop. If we approach it from the angle of literature, and place this collection in contrast to the papers of many successful, "great" writers in this repository and other PACSCL repositories, is it a worthwhile juxtaposition? Are bad writers, to paraphrase from Tolstoy’s observation on unhappy families, all bad in their own way? And does that make them worth studying?

Jenny has a category that she's jokingly asked to be added to the survey – whether the collection is good source material for a novel or a movie. This collection certainly fits the bill. I can definitely see the makings of something like American Movie in this person's frustrated aspirations to fame and fortune. But whether this collection could be anything more than that, I just don't know.

Back on the archival track, in the RLG-sponsored "Digitization Matters" forum last summer, Yale's Bill Landis suggested in a talk on mass digitization for archives that it's perhaps best suited for our not-so-great stuff (sound file; if you prefer to read some similarly provocative thoughts along these lines, check out OCLC’s report Shifting Gears: Gearing Up to Get Into the Flow). Why not put up an undistinguished collection in its entirety with minimal metadata and see whether anyone uses it, he queried. This collection would certainly make for an interesting experiment in that vein.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sweating the small stuff

In my pre-PACSCL life, my archives career focused heavily on institutional records -- in particular, processing medium to large collections of institutional records. I processed the records of university presidents, museum administrators, heads of non-profit organizations, school deans, and (in some of the most dreary processing of my career), administrative records of the financial aid office. It wasn't uncommon to be processing 100+ foot collections several times a year, and to view nearly anything under five feet as a lower priority since it could be tackled "anytime."

Moving to PACSCL and the unprocessed and underprocessed collections of the 22 institutions participating in this project, I've come to a major shift in my assumptions about what's a significant enough body of material to survey. When I visit institutions, it often turns out that they have a rather good handle on their larger collections - it's the small stuff that's giving them fits.

A lot of what we've surveyed is small, by pretty much any definition. Of the 1,078 collections surveyed as of today, 717 are under 5 feet -- and a staggering 400 of those are under 1 foot. And surveying really does seem to be beneficial for these types of materials.

This is because there are two main aims for the surveying. One is to assist with
internal control and prioritization of collections, both within and across institutions. The other is to improve intellectual access to collections. When we survey small collections, the benefit is largely in the second category. The survey record provides a collection-level description that can be used to create a MARC record, an EAD finding aid, or even a simple printout to put in a binder. The distance from our survey collection-level description to the description for a "fully processed" version of these collections tends to be much shorter than for larger collections (in fact, some participants tell us they consider our survey records for these types of collections pretty much final).

It seems there's a growing recognition of the benefits of applying archival standards and methods to processing and cataloging small collections. One sign of this is a new workshop offered by the Society of American Archivists titled "Applying DACS to Single-Item Manuscript Cataloging." I like to think we're a little ahead of the curve on this one!

I was also struck by a post on the Archives and Archivists listserv yesterday about the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections at the University of Alaska Fairbanks designating a "processing day" where all of the staff will work on their backlog of small collections; the idea is that everyone will set aside everything else they're doing and just get through as much as they can. I love this idea - we set aside special days for moves and cleaning out offices, why not do it for increasing access to our collections?

Friday, October 19, 2007

Klingons at Temple

I'll begin this post with the caveat that I'm not a big science fiction fan and what I don't know about Star Trek and Cons and so on could fill a decent sized library. That being said, one of the sci-fi collections that we surveyed recently at Temple University has really stuck with me. (Temple has a great science fiction collection, by the way, if you're interested. Check out their page describing the Paskow Science Fiction Collection.) The one we looked at the other day is the Sue Frank Klingon/Star Trek collection of fanzines and organizational newsletters. These were assembled by Dr. Frank from groups within and outside of the U.S. -- fan groups are to be found in Britain, New Zealand, and Italy, among other places. The titles include "Klingon Assault Group Force Recon," "The Pillage Voice," "Engage!," "Disruptor," and "Something Else." The newsletters reflect the range of Klingon-related activities afoot in the terran world. They contain drawings, photos, recipes, letters, poems, stories, technical information, and analyses of many aspects of Klingon language and culture. And lots of pearls of information; did you know, for example, that the species of cocoa bean grown on earth is inferior to that grown by the Klingons?

The collection consists of about six linear feet of material, so I'm sure it's just a drop in the bucket of the total Star Trek fan literature that exists in the world. Even so, when you see it all together, it seems like a great resource, both for those looking for the facts and the flavor of Klingon life and for those interested in the phenomenon of Star Trek fandom. What the collection as a whole conveys is the extent to which this piece of popular culture has worked its way into people's everyday lives. It's impossible to tell from the fanzines what proportion of their lives the fans spend as Klingons; I assume that for at least some of the fans, the Klingon identity is pretty central.

At any rate, the production of all this Klingon-related material is a nice illustration of the theme of the "dedicated collector" that crops up again and again in our surveying. (With this collection, I think both Sue Frank and the creators of the fanzines count as dedicated collectors). The collections we see that were created by this kind of devoted, focused person are almost always compelling, if not always as obviously interesting as the Klingon stuff. When a collection is visibly a labor of love, it inspires a certain respect, regardless of the research value of the information contained within.

And for a summary of science fiction collections around the country (including plenty of Star Trek materials), see the Research Resources at AboutSF.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I dream of genies

Lately we've been simultaneously surveying at two different sites. While John and Jenny progress through Temple's collections, I've been back at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, working on collections of the Genealogical Society of Pennsylvania with special guest star David, a reference librarian at HSP. Under the terms of HSP’s strategic alliance with GSP, materials which GSP collected (including several hundred feet of manuscript collections) are now part of HSP's holdings, so we’re surveying the manuscript material to help HSP's staff get a better handle on what's there.

HSP is already a rich source for genealogical and family research and the resources of GSP undoubtedly add to that richness. We've only been at the surveying for a little while, but already we've seen a variety of types of collections that fit under the "genealogy" umbrella, including funeral home records, items related to a Catholic church and cemetery, diaries of a minister recording his responses to personal and world events, and small caches of family papers.

By far the largest category of material, however, is genealogical research, created by people with various purposes: professional genealogists who conducted family research for others, individuals researching their own family connections, individuals interested in the genealogies of great persons like Charlemagne or William the Conqueror. The collections vary quite a bit both in how the research was compiled and how it was presented. Some people created scrapbooks or narrative histories that present a polished final product, while others maintained the research in its raw form. There are transcribed or photocopied extracts from published sources, printouts from microfilm, correspondence that documents the researcher’s inquiries to various libraries and archives, government offices, religious institutions, and personal contacts, pedigree charts, rough notes, and detailed data forms. Sometimes sources are cited, sometimes they're not. Some collections are thoroughly indexed by their creator or by volunteers at the society, while others are so idiosyncratic that at first glance their method seems decipherable only by their creator.

These collections provoke a number of questions when it comes to assessing research value. What do measures like "documentation quality" and "interest" mean when what is being assessed is someone's research using primary sources, rather than the sources themselves? We know that genealogy itself is a high interest topic; some sources claim that genealogy is now the second most popular hobby in the United States. (Even though some dispute the accuracy of these claims, anecdotal evidence and the success of services like clearly points to a large segment of the population being interested in tracing its roots.) But how are genealogical research materials in archives used by researchers other than the person who created them – and how likely are they to be used? While each collection has a fairly narrow focus, does its value exponentially increase when added to an accumulation of similar materials in a place like HSP? Is this a category of material where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?

Taking a slightly broader perspective, in addition to the genealogical content of these collections, do they tell us something about the nature of genealogical research? There’s a small but growing body of archival literature on the information seeking behavior of genealogists. For example, see Wendy Duff and Catherine A. Johnson's 2003 article from the American Archivist titled "Where is the list with all the names? Information-seeking behavior of genealogists" (soon to be available online, but currently print only) or Elizabeth Yakel's "Seeking information, seeking connections, seeking meaning: genealogists and family historians" from Information Research. These studies used interviews with and observation of individual genealogists to ferret out details of their research methods, but might an examination of those methods as exhibited in the collections they create also be useful?

Given that we still have over a hundred collections to survey, we'll be grappling with these questions for awhile. We have colleagues onsite here at HSP and GSP whose expertise will be invaluable, but I'd be interested to hear from other people who collect or access genealogical research materials about how such collections are used once they've passed from their creator into a repository.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Chess by telegraph, Quaker golfers, and Philadelphia numismatists...

Is this the answer to a Carnac riddle?* Possibly, but it's also a sampling of the subjects of collections you might uncover when searching our database of unprocessed and underprocessed collections. These are the results of a search for collections related to the PACSCL-designated theme "Leisure activities" (full results can be viewed here), but there are plenty more waiting to be found. Our database currently features 1,000 collections from eight repositories, and more collections and institutions will be added regularly.

This database is the first step of many toward improving physical and intellectual access to the collections surveyed for this project. It's also our small contribution to the increasing push in the archives and special collections community to provide researchers with information about our collections -- both processed and unprocessed -- in a timely fashion.

There are a number of other interesting approaches to providing information on unprocessed collections. For example, Yale University’s Beinecke Library has a searchable database of uncataloged acquisitions online, and its blogs often highlight particular collections from this queue.

The American Heritage Center, under the leadership of Mark Greene of "More Product, Less Process" fame, undertook a massive reevaluation of its holdings (the majority of which were unprocessed) and created MARC records in OCLC’s WorldCat for all the collections it decided to retain (you can read a press release about this project at here).

Princeton University's Mudd Manuscript Library provides multiple access points for both unprocessed and processed collections; within the last eighteen months, the staff have created collection-level MARC records for every previously uncataloged archival collection in its holdings, then used the freeware program MarcEdit to convert them to collection-level EAD finding aids that are web discoverable, like this one. The catalog records go into Princeton’s online catalog and Worldcat, and the finding aids are contributed to Princeton’s own EAD website and OCLC’s ArchiveGrid.

Lastly, but certainly not leastly, our very own University of Delaware provides preliminary descriptions of many of its unprocessed collections and lists them on its manuscript collections web page (see one for landscape architect Armistead W. Browning Jr. here). It's a simple, but effective, way of calling researchers' attention to these collections' existence.

Telling the world about our unprocessed collections is certainly not without its challenges, but our researchers will certainly benefit from it, and I’m confident that we will too.

* Yes, I know this is an incredibly dated reference, but even more than 15 years after Johnny Carson vacated the airwaves, there’s still no more recognizable trope for linking seemingly unrelated items!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

If it's Thursday, this must be Temple

We've just started at our next site, Temple University’s Special Collections. Subject matter-wise, it's one of the more abrupt shifts in the project: after nearly two months at the Academy of Natural Sciences surveying the papers of ornithologists, malacologists, ichthyologists, paleontologists, and just about every other flavor of natural history "-ologist" you can think of, we're now immersed in the records of leftist and counterculture organizations like the Socialist Review and Liberation News Service, among other topics.

This is also the first place we've been where a significant number of the collections we’re surveying are housed offsite. (Luckily for us, "offsite" in this case means a building that's a five-minute walk from the main library, so we can still avail ourselves of Temple's many food trucks.) The warehouse doesn't quite have the rarified atmosphere of some of our other stops, or one that conforms to the idealized representations of archives in movies and literature as quiet, dark-paneled nooks -- it's kind of like working at Home Depot, except that instead of 2' x 4's and plumbing fixtures there are boxes upon boxes of incredible manuscript collections.

I think this kind of shifting – of atmosphere, of subject matter, of routines, of personalities – is beneficial to us and to the project in a lot of ways. It shakes up our preconceived notions and we get to observe all the different ways people do things, benefit from their differing perspectives on many of the same types of issues, and understand why they collect what they collect. If we got too entrenched at one place, we might start to see things through only one lens, or expect things to work only a certain way. (Of course, one doesn't need to physically change sites as often as we do to maintain perspective; mental shifts – accomplished by going to a conference, visiting a colleague’s repository, or keeping up on professional literature and listservs – go a long way.)

It certainly isn't as comfortable as coming in to the same desk, coffee cup, and co-worker faces every morning, but it definitely makes us informed about (and open to) the complexities of our field, which should help us keep complacency at bay when we eventually settle back into a less nomadic work existence.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Taking the show on the road

I just returned to the office after a couple weeks away for various professional and personal activities. The major professional activity was attending the Society of American Archivists conference in Chicago, where I exhibited a poster on the survey project (captured in miniature below – please click and save it if you’d like to see it in its full 44" x 28" glory).

SAA 2007 poster for PACSCL survey

I gathered up a raft of business cards and talked with lots of people about their particular collection situations. Both coasts are represented in my followup pile, as are a number of the states in between. There are plenty of university archives and academic special collections in there, but also private historical societies, museums, religious institutions, schools, professional organizations and a funding agency.

Talking with people at SAA emphasized to me once again the similarity in the issues so many of us in archives and special collections face, regardless of the types of institutions we work in, the kinds of collections we hold, or how long our programs have been around. In some ways this can be a touch disheartening – if so many of our issues are so common, shouldn’t we have figured out some kind of solution by now? – but in many more ways it’s very encouraging, because it means we can learn from and help each other.

Special thanks to everyone who stopped by, and to John and Jenny for continuing to work down the mountain of Philadelphia area surveying while I was in the Midwest.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The heretofore undiscovered link between surveying and hoboing

Is there any word in the English language more amusingly evocative than "hobo"? (And, by logical conclusion, is "hoboing" English's funniest gerund?)

Lest you think this an idle query with no survey content, let me tell you what prompted this train of thought. On Friday we surveyed a collection of notebooks from an amateur ornithologist who was active from the 1920s to the 1980s. This, in itself, is not unusual, since the archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences are replete with birding documentation, ranging from daily checklists of birds seen to highly detailed species and location descriptions to anatomically correct drawings to tens of thousands of photographs and slides.

What was unusual about this collection was that, along with the checklists and the decades worth of notebooks chronicling sightings throughout the United States, Europe, South America, and Africa, were journal entries in which the author chronicled his "hoboing" adventures -- hitching rides with strangers, making camp with wizened oldtimers, getting rounded up by the police -- all undertaken in pursuit of his birding passion. This presented a whole different face to hoboing and, probably needless to say, prompted a weekend's worth of hobo-related google searches.

Speaking of faces and hoboing, here's a link to a wonderfully diverting site where you can browse through visual depictions of "the" 700 Hobo Names, as authoritatively declared by John Hodgman in his book The Areas of My Expertise.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

An update from the depths of the Academy of Natural Sciences archives

We've been surveying at the Academy for just over a week, and the work is humming right along. Because we're focusing on unprocessed materials in this project, we're not going through the collections of the most famous of the scientists and explorers represented in the archives (those have been processed). Still, it's been an interesting visit so far. We had the opportunity to talk to some of the collection curators about how they use the archives, and we were given a glimpse of the bird, fossil, and insect specimens at the Academy. (Three million bugs! Chills run up my spine just thinking of it!) We saw birds collected by John James Audubon (including Carolina Parakeets) and by John Gould (including Fairy Wrens).

As for the paper collections, they're not too bad either. We've just finished surveying a collection of papers by and about Edgar T. Wherry (1885-1982), who was a botanist and mineralogist. The papers at the Academy mostly deal with his extensive study of the phlox family, but we ran across an interesting PACSCL nexus:

  • Wherry took courses and later taught mineralogy at the Wagner Free Institute of Science;
  • a set of Wherry's hand-colored glass slides were reproduced and indexed by Marnie and Bill Flook;
  • the University of Delaware has a collection of miniature books donated by Marnie Flook, and we surveyed a set of documents related to Flook's microbibliomania;
  • an article about Wherry's slides was authored by the Flooks and published in Green Scene, a magazine published by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (of which Wherry was also a member)

There is such a broad range of institutions taking part in the PACSCL survey that it's surprising to see so many of them turn up in one collection. But as we progress through the survey, I'm finding that Philadelphia is smaller than it seems.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Rate me, equate me, any way you want me

One of the stated goals of this project is to develop a common "assessment culture" among PACSCL institutions when it comes to unprocessed collections. This will help institutions across the consortium generate ideas for collaborative projects, as well as give them a common language and methodology for prioritizing the collections in their backlogs going forward. To do this, we’re applying the same survey method and rating system to all the collections in this project, regardless of their format and regardless of their institutional context. As you might imagine, this isn’t easy – not when one week you’re evaluating an order book from a 19th century wigmaker in a university special collections and the next you’re poring over a prominent 20th century ornithologist’s research materials in one of the nation’s oldest scientific research museums – but we’ve worked hard with the participating institutions to smooth out all those little idiosyncrasies that often get in the way of coordinated planning for special collections materials.

The direct predecessor to our project is a comprehensive survey project at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania that took place from 2000-2002 – in fact, the general methodology we’re using, albeit with some modifications, is sometimes referred to as "The Historical Society of Pennsylvania protocols." Other institutions, like Columbia University and the University of Virginia, have adapted this model for their own use, and have some interesting resources online. Their resources don't appear to be online yet, but also using a similar model are institutions as diverse as WGBH public radio and television in Boston and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Of course, the assessment model we’re using is one among many. I was interested to read this article in ARL’s bimonthly newsletter about UNCAP, a project at the University of Chicago in which faculty and graduate students identify, assess and process collections. There are a range of models for preservation surveys, including this one developed at Washington State University that was detailed in an article in the last issue of the American Archivist. And various archival appraisal models, particularly the Minnesota Method, developed by Mark Greene and Todd Daniels-Howell, could easily be adapted to the assessment of collections for processing, not just for acquisition.

I’m curious to hear about other assessment models people have applied to their collections, for either processing or preservation. When faced with a backlog of unprocessed material, how do you decide what to tackle next?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Here, There, Everywhere

Obviously one of the neat things about this project is getting around to all the various repositories. Not only do we get to see behind the scenes, we get to work there for awhile.
Everyone we've worked with has been extremely helpful and excited about the project, making us feel right at home. We've been invited to share birthday cake, help with solving the crossword, and trade recipes. Of course this also means that when we do have to leave it can be a bit of a downer, in no small part due to the fact that we've been made to feel so welcome. But the work must go on.

This past week Christine and I visited the Academy of Natural Sciences and did some prep work. We don't usually have a chance to get acquainted with the collections before we start surveying and this was a welcome change. In addition to doing a shelf read of the collections to be surveyed we were able to do some rearrangement and bring separated collections together. We ended up with a table cleared of recent accessions and a better idea of what was to be surveyed. All of which was very satisfying.

And from the "who knew?" department this.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Finding the skeletons in your closets (and basements and desks and drawers)

Most collectors are accustomed to finding what they want in less than glamorous places. Archivists and manuscript librarians are no exceptions. The basement, the attic, the garage, the abandoned office building and the self-storage unit are work environs almost as familiar to us as the processing table and the reading room.

When I visit participants in this project to determine what they want us to survey, I find people will often begin by showing me sets of nicely labeled and orderly archival boxes in well-lit stacks. This is the "socially acceptable" portion of their backlog.

But when I press and ask "Is there anything else?" that's when the real adventure begins. Suddenly I'm being led into dark basements where towers of ancient liquor boxes and loose and often grimy manuscripts dwell. We're crouching under desks and pulling out keys for locked cabinets that haven't been opened in years. We're looking at items of unknown provenance brought in by predecessors and problem collections that have been sitting on the "I'll get to it someday" shelf for decades. As Rebecca Johnson Melvin, the head of the manuscript unit at the University of Delaware's Special Collections pointed out, oftentimes these collections have been around so long that we almost don't see them anymore. It's as if they're part of the furniture. (Funnily enough, we actually did survey a piece of furniture last week, a wooden cabinet with, what else, slides inside.)

Almost everyone in the project has found more for us to survey than what they originally intended, and often they uncover even more while we're onsite surveying. I think, and participants have told me, that seeing what we do, being "forced" to revisit holdings when selecting collections to survey, and having a few more hands and minds available to the cause makes facing this portion of the backlog more palatable. These are the skeletons in these institutions' closets, but they're not all that scary upon closer inspection.

For the last three weeks we've been surveying the most extensive skeleton yet. Samuel Moyerman was a Philadelphia manuscript and memorabilia dealer who sold collections up and down the Eastern seaboard. When he died, a good deal of his inventory remained unsold, and in 1972 the University of Delaware Library received two moving trucks full of it. Over the years the staff have been able to process a great deal of it, but significant unprocessed caches remained, including a pile of boxes that were on the floor in a corner of their vault whose only finding aid was a brief typed list taped to the wall. What made this particular pile so daunting was that it wasn't just one collection, it was over 100 collections, most with discrete but somewhat uncertain provenance, with dates ranging from the 18th to 20th century and subject matter that ran the gamut from wigmaking to the health of prison inmates. Given the press of other responsibilities and projects, finding a way to tackle this group of material had seemed challenging at best, but the survey project provided an opportunity to finally meet the challenge head on.

Thanks to the efforts of the intrepid Anita Wellner, Rebecca, the surveyors and a small band of UD interns and staff who were willing to get their hands dirty (literally), there is no longer a pile of Moyerman material at the University of Delaware. Instead there are 110 survey records and dozens of other materials which the staff plan to integrate into existing collections or process in the very near future. Information on the contents of that pile will soon be available in a publicly searchable database and ready to be included in MARC catalog records and collection-level EAD finding aids with the use of a few simple tools and macros. It's one of the most rewarding aspects of this project to me, seeing nagging problems addressed and "hidden" collections made more accessible.

So, what skeletons are lurking in your closets? Don't worry, you can fess up anonymously if you want.

Friday, June 29, 2007

But mommy, I don't want to look at pictures of shuffleboard again

In the past few months we've encountered a number of collections of people's travel slides out in the fields of surveying. These have ranged from small boxes with a few dozen slides a piece to an entire metal cabinet of 3D stereo slides.

I have to admit, my first, admittedly unfair, reaction to these collections is usually "Why??!!" I have visions of these collections' lives before they found archival homes, and these visions generally consist of generations of grandchildren being forced to sit in darkened living rooms, watching through the window at their friends outside playing, while Grandma and Grandpa recount all the meals they ate during their annual pilgrimage to Myrtle Beach.

But we've seen some pretty interesting travel slides so far, from people who didn't just hit the typical tourist destinations in their journeys or approach their travels in the usual way. There was the set at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society by an unknown photographer whose travels included cruises to Cuba, Panama, and the North Cape, and vacations spent documenting the people and places of Minnewaska, New York. (Elena Sisti, the Horticultural Society's Information Services Librarian, said she could see the makings of a whole Lake Wobegon-type narrative for these.) There was also the collection at the University of Delaware's Special Collections whose extensive indexing and categorization reflected an anthropological approach to the world, even though the travel was likely for pleasure, not business. Even the set whose accompanying narrative consisted primarily of descriptions of morning routines and dinner menu selections, also at the University of Delaware, was oddly compelling.

On a related (though more frivolous) note, the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players have made a career of taking slide collections they find at garage sales and thrift stores and turning them into songs. (I've always thought they'd be the perfect musical entertainment for the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists.) Take a look at the video slideshow that accompanied the CD version of their song "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959" for an innovative use of travel slides.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The survey of 33,000 linear feet begins with a single step

Here's a geographic representation, complete with commentary, of all the places we've visited in the course of our work, courtesy of the omnipresent Google's My Maps feature.

The Sites of the PACSCL Consortial Survey Initiative

Please visit regularly as we add survey stops and even some collection information to our very own pseudo-GIS system.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Can a "boring" collection have high research value?

We regularly host group training sessions for people in the institutions participating in the survey project to acclimate them to the survey method before we start work at their institution. One of the highlights of these sessions, for them and for us, is when we do hands-on surveying of some collections in small teams. This includes discussing and assigning ratings for the collection characteristics assessed by the survey: Condition, Quality of Housing, Physical Access, Intellectual Access, Documentation Quality, and Interest (these last two combine to make up the Research Value Rating, or RVR, for short).

We pick sample collections to use in these sessions both for their ability to be surveyed within a limited period of time by people with little previous experience of the survey method as well as because they demonstrate various challenges inherent in the survey process. One of the collections we've used in all of the training sessions so far is the Mary Bainerd Smith diaries, a collection of 64 diaries from 1894 to 1957 held by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The two-sentence description on HSP’s website sums this collection up quite accurately, if succinctly: "Philadelphia diaries of Mary Bainerd Smith on the domestic concerns of the Smith family and their friends. There is little commentary or mention of public affairs." This collection always provokes debate in our surveying teams -- and often amongst the project staff after the training session is over!

Each day Mary Bainerd Smith wrote a few sentences about her and her family's whereabouts and activities, generally in very dry (and adjective-free) language. Mary Bainerd Smith clearly wasn't giving contemporaries Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons a run for their money, as you can see in such archetypal entries as "Mother and father to church." "Rain almost all day." "Extension phone installed in bedroom." "May out to lunch and supper." (For most of the years, there's no "I" in the diaries, but the writer is "May.") When she wasn't available, a family member stepped in, writing in the same minimalist style (in fact, a family member records when May goes into a coma, and when she dies, in daily entries in the last diary); occasionally a household member writes at the bottom of an entry to note that the back heater has been turned on or that a household repair has been made. Every once in awhile, an obituary or wedding announcement is pasted in, and there's a list of Christmas gifts given and received in the back of many of the diaries, but otherwise there is little deviation from the established pattern. There's almost nothing about this woman's likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, or responses to the many changes in the world that took place over the seven decades spanned by the diaries, and we know little about Mary Bainerd Smith aside from what she wrote in these diaries. Unlike Ronald Reagan's diaries, which a recent New Yorker review described as also having a "quotidian quality," intrinsic interest based on the prominence of their creator is not a factor, so we must judge them on their merits alone.

Research value isn't the only rating we discuss, but it is the one that tends to elicit the most debate, so, from the perspective of surveying, what is the value of these diaries for research? On the one hand, we have dry, opinion- and detail-free entries about social calls, household deliveries, and the weather from a woman about whom we know very little. On the other hand, we have a comprehensive data set for over 60 years of a woman's (and a family's) life. Is the fact that there is so little insertion of personality itself of interest? Does that say something about women's lives during this period, or does it simply tell us that this particular woman was dull? Is this an unusually complete set of diaries, or was it fairly typical for each household to have such a recorder? Would more descriptive diaries kept for a shorter period of time, or correspondence between family members over a period of years that exhibits a range of viewpoints, be a richer source, or is this particular source plenty rich just as it is?

So far there's been little consensus in the training sessions about the research value of Mary Bainerd Smith's diaries. Groups have given the collection ratings across the spectrum, from those who think that the monotony of the entries and the insularity of the life they describe cancel out the potential value derived from their comprehensiveness, to those who see them as a rare and remarkable record of the life of an "ordinary" woman. People's take on this collection tends to be very dependent on what they know and value coming in, the types of research and related primary sources with which they are familiar, and what the word "diary" connotes to them. If they approach the collection with Samuel Pepys or Anne Frank in mind, they're bound to be disappointed; if they view Mary Bainerd Smith's collection more as a household log, they're often impressed by the indefatigability of her recordkeeping and various facts that might be gleaned from it.(Fortunately for the project team members and the preservation of harmony among us, this collection was surveyed during a previous survey project at HSP, so it’s not up to us to affix a number to it.)

We use this collection in the trainings not to demonstrate that it is impossible to come up with a meaningful research value rating, or to suggest that there's a right or wrong lens through which to view this particular collection, but rather to point to our understanding of the research value rating's inherent subjectivity and the importance of doing our background research and talking with the staff at the different institutions about the current and potential research use of their collections. The more information we have, the more confident we will be in assigning a particular rating. Not because there's one true rating that will definitively settle the everlasting research value of a collection, but because we want to make sure that the rating we give it reflects the values of the institution and the research community at large at the time we surveyed it as much as possible.

As in any appraisal task, we're making our best faith effort, given the information we have about current values and what we can predict about the future. We greatly appreciate all the assistance staff in the participating institutions lend us in this difficult task, and we feel fortunate to be involved in a project where such a wealth of knowledge and expertise is made available to us.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

On Being “Stuff”-less

I’m an archivist. That’s my professional identity and I’m proud of it.

Yet in this project, there’s not a single collection for which I have responsibility. I don’t acquire papers and records. I don’t work with researchers. I don’t process or write finding aids. I don't digitize records or put together exhibitions. And I don’t supervise anyone who does any of those things. Everything I do is intended to help people who do those things, but it’s not quite the same as coming into work every morning and confronting my own personal mountain of boxes and folders or walking into a stacks area with the knowledge that as far as the eye can see it’s “mine.”

I spend a lot of time waiting for others to make decisions about their “stuff”: decisions before we survey, while we survey, after we survey. I can state my opinions, and provide information that will hopefully help, but in the end those decisions are theirs, not mine. In the meantime, I’m constantly thinking of ways we can do more with what we do have: more export formats for the database, more ways the data can be crunched, more potential linkages with other projects, more people to involve. Sometimes I feel like Jane Austen, with this project as my “little bit [two inches wide] of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush.” (On the plus side, to get slightly more contemporary with my references, I do have Lloyd Dobler's preferred kind of job, one in which I don't have to "buy anything, sell anything, or process anything.")

But I find that in many ways, what I do now is what I’ve always liked most about being an archivist anyway. Sure I miss rehabilitating a disorganized mess of papers or finding that one perfect answer to a researcher’s query, but there is plenty to compensate. In talking about and finding ways to help others find solutions for some of the challenges in their repositories, I get to think through those challenges from different perspectives, some of which closely mirror mine, and some of which are vastly different. I get to see the insides of and know 22 different libraries, archives, and museums (and even more wonderful library, archives and museum professionals) in the span of 30 months -- more than many people see in an entire career. And I get to think a lot about my field, and all the exciting changes that are taking place in it, and the kind of archivist I want to be.

So being "stuff"-less isn't so bad. It may be a "small" canvas, but I like it immensely.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Cleaning up

I've been working solo the last few days, mainly cleaning up records from some recent surveying. I'm fleshing out biographies and scope and content notes, checking dates and box counts, adding subjects. That sort of thing. The work can be a bit tedious at times, especially trying to sort out various family members when they all have the same name. I can understand the impulse, but I can't say I necessarily enjoy the result. But the work can be pretty satisfying as well, especially when you find information on someone that was playing a pretty good game of hide and seek. Genealogies and family histories help here, as do biographical dictionaries and of course the internet. In the end, though, there always seem to be one or two that continue to remain elusive.

I heard this on NPR a couple of weeks ago and it sounds pretty amazing. More here

Friday, April 6, 2007

No doubloons...

When I described this project to a friend, he said "Have you found any doubloons?" I was sad to report that we had not, as yet, found any doubloons. However, lots of other interesting things have turned up, including:

  • A bottle that formerly contained water with special properties (the water came from a pool that is said to freeze in the summer and become hot in the winter);
  • Instructions for the operation of a grenade-launcher (in German);
  • A box of mauve neckties;
  • A postcard from Wall Drug;
  • Confederate "shin plasters";
  • A brochure for the services of exotic dancers;
  • A book of yarn samples;
  • A baseball and baseball glove;
  • And two ashtrays (in two different archives).
Most of these items bore little relation to the main focus of the collections, but they made their way into the boxes anyway. And there they remain, waiting for the lucky processing archivist who gets to puzzle out just how they fit into the picture of the collection. And we go on to other collections, maintaining the hope that we will eventually find those doubloons.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Canaday Library at Bryn Mawr College

Here's an image of Bryn Mawr's Canaday Library taken on a bright and sunny, but sadly not spring, day. Soon there will be beautiful flowers on the trees in front of the library. They're difficult to see in this picture, but the library has a lovely new set of steps leading up to it.

We surveyed the collections in Bryn Mawr's archives in November, December, and January. We were there long enough to really feel at home. I was at Bryn Mawr previously as a student employee, so I was very happy to be back. Lorett, Marianne, Eric, Barbara and the rest of the staff at the library were all gracious hosts. The collections we surveyed at Bryn Mawr ranged from letters sent from a Red Cross canteen in France during the first World War to the notebooks and papers of a current member of Bryn Mawr's English faculty, and from suffrage ephemera to the course notebooks of a Bryn Mawr student from the 1890s. The largest collection we looked at was the papers of Harris Wofford, a former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and President of Bryn Mawr from 1970 to 1978. The smallest was a set of papers of an alumna, mainly personal correspondence and documents related to her estate.